A simple sketch of Steel City Con would show artists, vendors, celebrities and fans navigating 100,000 square feet of a Monroeville convention center for three days. The more telling narrative, though, is how so many self-described “geeks” broke down the barriers separating competing fantasy worlds during Pittsburgh’s annual comic convention.
Prior to the gathering’s 10 a.m. start on Friday, Aug. 10, a line of eager attendees stretched into the Monroeville Convention Center parking lot. Some clad in cartoon oriented T-shirts, others clinging posters and transportable mementos, the eventgoers were given wristbands denoting whether they had purchased single-day or three-day passes.
Once allowed inside, participants were able to peruse dealers’ and artists’ tables, purchase memorabilia and meet Hollywood icons including Ron Perlman, whose performance in Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” (2004) and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008) endeared him to devotees perhaps as much as his role as Vincent in “Beauty and the Beast” (1987-1990) earned him the praise of critics who awarded the Jewish thespian a Golden Globe for Best Actor in Television Series Drama in 1989.
Betwixt spaces within the convention center designated for star seekers and areas for purchasing wares was an artist alley. Seated within it was Erin Schechtman Caruso, a Cleveland-based illustrator whose work specializes in embracing pop characters.
“It’s all different characters hugging, so there’s superhero ones like Batman and Robin hugging, there’s ones from your favorite cartoons like Steven Universe, where everyone is hugging, there’s kind of some ones that are a little awkward — like I have Iron Man hugging vodka because he’s an alcoholic — so they’re not all sweet and cute. There’s a little bit of humor involved as well,” said the Jewish artist.
Situated at a station nearby was Brock Flotta, whose paper mache masks were of particular pride.
“I just like taking time to paint them,” noted the Cheswick, Pa., native.
Flotta came to Steel City Con to “hang out … show off my artwork and see what everybody likes.”
It is much the same reason why Ren McKenzie, of Columbus, Ohio, traveled three hours to set up an adjacent booth.
“I enjoy seeing people’s emotions when they see my work; whether good or bad, whether they like it or hate it, I love invoking an emotion,” said the artist with a penchant for “mostly comic book or general geekish art.”
“Seeing all the fans, seeing people’s reaction to my work and seeing all of the ridiculous cosplay that people do, it’s a lot of fun,” echoed Nathan Jeffers, of Buffalo, N.Y.
Cosplay, which is the art of dressing up as a fictional character, is a comic con staple.
In Pittsburgh, the practice has grown exponentially, explained Spike Bowan, a co-founder of 3 Rivers Cosplay. Surrounded by those attired as the Joker, Jack Sparrow and Harley Quinn, Bowan described how cosplay “helps with building relationships, social skills and networking skills.”
The individuals here could very well be divided, and while they may not go so far as to “force choke” or “Vulcan nerve pinch” one another, environments like Steel City Con and the act of cosplay allow people who may splinter into specifically “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” or other self-selecting groups to leave their basements, “break down walls and boundaries,” and fraternize in a “healthy” way, he added.
Before personifying the Joker and haranguing Batman, Shawn Poland similarly described cosplay’s value: “This is my favorite thing to do, it calms my anxiety, my depression. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
There is a general delight exuded by those at Steel City Con, noted John Russo, screenwriter, director and co-creator of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).
“There are all kinds of celebrities from the entertainment business, television series and movies and authors and just about anything you can think of, including me, and so if you’re interested in that kind of thing it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s food here and special events you can enjoy, and I enjoy being here and so do all of the people that attend.”
The convention enables a community to congregate, said Meg Thomas, a Munhall, Pa.-based artist specializing in watercolor. “We really just like it because of the interaction we get with all of the people who come here.”
Some people associate an aloofness with comic cons, but “I’ve actually come to realize how social comic book people actually are,” said Eric Walker, of Watchtower Heroes, a Columbiana, Ohio, store. What’s drawn him in most are “the conversations that you can form around comic books.”
Tony Capo, owner of Robot Zero in Geneva, Ohio, said that comics have been a part of his life since childhood.
“As a kid I loved the art,” he explained. “My mother would go to garage sales and just gobble up all the Archie comics that she could, because that’s what she read when she was a kid, or Mad Magazines. My brothers and I would sit in our tents in the backyard reading Archie comics or Mad Magazines, and that led me to Spider-Man and the X-Men and eventually here.”
The gregarious bearded vendor came to Steel City Con with a host of salable goods, but the crown in Capo’s cap was “The Amazing Spider-Man” #300 (1988), with art by Todd McFarlane. It’s the first appearance of Venom, a character whose movie will hit theaters this October, and that issue is “one of the coolest things,” said Capo. “I think it’s something I aspired to get when I was younger but I’ll eventually have to sell it.”
The Ohioan was willing to part with the piece for upward of $400. PJC